Life with a Peugeot 304S – part two.
Domestic bliss with my newly acquired, more comely automotive companion from Sochaux was initially tempered by the fact that there were other, less savoury matters to attend to, like disposing of the now good as landfill Fiat. A number of phone calls ensued before a man turned up with a flatbed, lifted the hapless 127 aboard, and twenty quid better off, Mirafiori’s errant son departed for the eternal. Of all the cars I’ve owned, I have never smoked one as morbidly close to the filter.
Meanwhile, the 304 continued to beguile, every journey an event, every destination a succession of benevolent glance-backs; could this Maize Yellow vision of loveliness actually be mine? But roseate glows aside, there were also practical considerations to consider. I needed a new exhaust, and in those pre-internet days, it was not the job of a moment to procure one. But through the auspices of the owner’s club I found a supplier.
Having driven out to their depot in Coulsden, Surrey, I discovered that ‘yes we have one’ actually meant the one they held in stock was for a 304 estate. Figuring it could be modified to fit, and with little real alternative, I took it.
Shortly after, one late November evening, as I nursed the still-cold 304 through the Camberwell side streets, the battery warning light ignited its lambent alarm: Trouble. Leaving the engine running, I found a torch, lifted the bonnet and quickly discerned the problem. I wasn’t going anywhere – the alternator drive belt had snapped.
This, as aficionados of the marque will attest, was no ordinary drive belt, being a round the houses job, à la Corvair. While capable of home maintenance, I had neither the toolset, the facilities, nor the manual, but I really had no choice, so having limped back (fortunately it happened quite close to home), there the 304 sat until I got all of my ducks quacking. The belt itself was no problem – a quick trip to an Old Kent Road motor factor – while another into Foyles bookstore on the Charing Cross Road brought forth a Haynes workshop manual.
Thus armed, along with a set of axle stands, I set to one miserably cold, overcast afternoon. With freezing fingers, the hours ticked monotonously by; each time I thought I almost had it, the serpentine routing would slip through my already numb fingers. Reading and re-reading the manual until the words were dancing in front of my eyes, I was clearly missing something obvious. Disgusted with myself, I left it and went inside to thaw out.
It was the best thing I could have done. Upon resuming, I soon recognised I had neglected to sufficiently slacken off the lower tensioner. Almost losing the retaining nut down the nearby curbside drain, and with trembling hands (only partially through the intense cold), eureka! A few adjustments on the tension and the 304 ran like a watch. I was, I have to admit, ridiculously pleased with myself.
The exhaust proved less of a success. The cut-down replacement was very much a shoehorn fit and while fine at moderate speeds, at the motorway limit, an intense boom would permeate the cabin. I stuck to A-roads and made a mental note (a) never to darken the exhaust fitter’s door again, and (b) to get it sorted at some point. But as the car very rarely left the Capital, it hardly ever troubled me.
London remained very much a driver’s city during the late ’90s, so I took the 304 virtually everywhere; its handy size and nimbleness making it the ideal urban companion; distinctive enough to be admired, yet not sufficiently flash to draw unwanted attention. Upon more prosaic errands, the hatchback, deep boot (the spare lived beneath the car) and folding rear bench made it a practical one as well.
I loved driving it; the engine’s refined timbre, the supple suspension, the view over the wingtops, the glow of the instrument lighting (my most vivid memories are of driving it at night); the reflection of its elegant Pininfarina lines in the nocturnal storefronts. The fact that it drove like a modern never failed to impress – what a revelation it must have been when new.
One of its out-of-London forays led to a further drama. Cruising Northwards on the M11, another warning light flashed danger upon the instrument panel – this of a far more ominous nature – water temperature. A glance at the gauge: DEFCON 1. Wisps of steam began drifting upwards, so following an emergency diversion onto the hard shoulder, I cut the engine, calculating that the residual momentum would get me to an exit ramp.
Fortune was smiling upon me that day, for almost immediately one hove into view. Not only that, but it was for my intended destination. Better still, Duxord RAF museum, being literally adjacent to the motorway slip road, meant I could slip the Peugeot straight into the carpark. I didn’t even have to get out and push.
Following an enjoyable few hours viewing historic aircraft I returned to the car, topped up the radiator and gingerly headed London-wards. It was slow going with one eye on the temperature gauge, entailing a number of pitstops to bring the needle back from peril. One reconditioned radiator later and all again was well.
To be fair to the car, most of the problems I encountered were age-related: the alternator needed reconditioning at one point, the starter motor another time. (Motto: Always park on a hill when you have an old car.) But having found a reliable, honest and for London, inexpensive Peugeot specialist in East London’s Forest Gate, the car was well cared for.
But the question you are all pondering is whether my life was rendered less of a Jarvis Cocker kitchen-sink drama by dint of the 304’s advent? Well, not quite, but then as we all know, such matters do not necessarily change for the better just because you’ve got some new threads. But even if life hadn’t necessarily altered materially, my thrashings and flailings were somewhat better tailored.
Towards the end of 1997, I took up an offer from a friend to spend the winter at her bolthole in New Zealand’s South Island. I wasn’t enjoying my job, or to be honest, much of my life in London by that stage, so I figured, what the hell. I quit my job, put everything (including the 304) into storage, and spent four memorable months on a ten-acre small-holding in Middle Earth.
Having departed Auckland 24 hours before in 30° C heat, I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing back at Heathrow one leaden-skied March morning with little to show for myself but a trove of memories, a store of regret, a heap of debt, and a mustard-yellow Peugeot, languishing in a South-West London lock-up.
Better go fetch it out then, hadn’t I?
The final episode will follow shortly.
 Foyles bookstore was an anachronism, with a labyrinthine layout, forbidding staff and a Byzantine purchasing methodology. I had to take my Haynes manual to the counter at the Transport section, obtain a paper invoice, go down to the ground floor and pay, then return with the receipt. Only then was the book handed to me. Despite the wilful eccentricity, it was a wonderful place to linger. Today, it’s just another book store.
 Apart from one evening in Notting Hill Gate when parked up next to my brother’s DS 23 Pallas. They made quite the pair.
 The 304’s rear compartment was surprisingly spacious and became involved in a number of home-moves (not all mine) while in my tenure.
 Fortunately, I caught it in time – the engine was unharmed.
 Highly recommended, aviation fans.
 A classic London ‘railway mews’ garage with trains into Liverpool Street station constantly rumbling overhead. Squeezing in and back out was always something of a test of nerve.
Brand New You’re Retro was a track from the 1996 album Maxinquaye by Tricky – a record, alongside Pulp’s His n’ Hers, I had on rotation on the 304’s cassette player at the time.